ECOS 45 (3) – How modern management erases ‘Ancient Woods’


A rich resource for people, wildlife, and heritage

Ancient woodland is, in theory at least, one of the better protected habitats in Britain. However, the reality on the ground is less than positive and even verging on nightmarish. The late Oliver Rackham noted the period of the 1950s to the 1980s as ‘the Locust Years’ for Britain’s most precious woods as they were swept aside by post-1940s heavy machinery. Examples of the impacts are given later. These sites were replaced mostly by either modern intensive agriculture or by serried rows of the planted trees of twentieth-century forestry.  However, by the 1980s, the tide turned and with pioneering work by Oliver Rackham and George Peterken, there was at last recognition and a degree of protection for what they termed ‘ancient woodland’. They toyed with various names such as ‘wildwood’, primary woodland, and the like but eventually settled on ‘ancient woodland’. Indeed, this concept was clearly different from say, ‘wildwood’, as it didn’t imply continuity of ‘natural woodland’ back to any primeval origins, but that these sites were unique historic landscapes whose interest including ecology depended on land-use history and continuity over many centuries. Starting dates became problematic but Rackham favoured 1700 AD, whilst Peterken as the Nature Conservancy Council advisor, settled on 1600 AD; the logic being that this was before the advent of widespread tree planting. If woods could be evidenced to this date, then they were ‘natural’ or ‘semi-natural’ in origin rather than plantations. This latter date was used for the Ancient Woodland Inventory (the statutory guidance) in England and Wales. Scotland uses the much later date of 1750 AD because this was when the Roy Military Survey of Scotland took place (1747-1755), and therefore the first reliable maps emerged. The take-home message is that ancient woodland comprises sites having antiquity and a degree of continuity of management, though this ebbed and flowed over the centuries. Essentially these are not purely ‘natural’ sites but are semi-natural or ‘eco-cultural’ with people and nature interacting in often traditional cultural, and generally predictable cycles over long timelines. Furthermore, the coincidence of human history and natural conditions is irreplaceable and if disrupted or broken, can never be re-created. This final point is important in terms of its implications for what follows. 

Wood anemone Whitwell Wood, Derbyshire
Photo: Ian D. Rotherham

What is woodland?

Essentially, we probably all agree that ‘woodland’ involves trees in a landscape or the countryside. However, when we ask pertinent questions such as ‘how many trees per unit area’ or ‘how far apart can they be’, then the answers are often not forthcoming. We can go further and question what we mean by a ‘tree’ and when is a tree a shrub or vice versa. Indeed, the resulting confusion relates directly back to the core concept of ‘woodland’, and if this is difficult to pin down, then other issues such as protection become even more problematic. Furthermore, confusion over what is a tree, a shrub, or a woodland, I suggest means that many valuable sites are simply overlooked because they don’t fit. An easy example of this was that for the Ancient Woodland Inventory in England, until recently, there was a spatial cut-off in area of two hectares and so anything less (and many linear woodlands for instance), were omitted. Sites with smaller trees or shrubs, or in extreme conditions (high altitude, exposed coastal zones, low nutrient levels, drought etc) where trees are reduced in stature are also overlooked.

Nevertheless, we can agree that woodland generally means trees, though I would argue not necessarily always. If trees are removed in part or whole throughout a treescape, we have the thorny issues of how many trees there are and how far apart for the site to be considered woodland. Generally if it is wet or humid, such as along the western Atlantic coast of Britain, (but also further east than most people realise if the topography is suitable), then unless a site is ploughed or otherwise destroyed, its ecology and archaeology remain associated with woodland origins. If trees return, then in a few centuries you might never realise the removal ever took place. So, yet again, we can pose the question of how long an area of ground can be without its trees and still be woodland when the trees re-colonise. Yet there is an additional matter of open land maintained throughout the medieval period but within a woodland. In a deer park or hunting chase this might be a laund (an open area where deer might graze or else be fed hay in winter), and both meadows and pastures were also present within working woods. Moreover, these open areas are often some of the best bits of habitat for many ‘woodland’ wildlife species and flowers which require sunlight. This is reflected in contemporary conservation management guidance where rides and glades are at a premium, become priority features for wildlife, and raise issues of the roles of trees and shade in the ecology of a ‘wood’. Woodland edge such as around the perimeter or along and around glades and rides, are key zones for birds and insects like butterflies and hoverflies. Oliver Rackham made the point very eloquently at one of my Sheffield-based woodland conferences, that woodland wildflowers are mostly shade tolerators which survive the shade but thrive, flower, and set seed in periods of open sunlight that follow treefall or human coppicing of the understorey. The shady periods as tree and shrub layers close, are vital for many woodland flowers primarily because they eliminate those species which cannot tolerate the loss of light. These would otherwise overtop and dominate typical flowers such as primrose, bluebell, stitchwort, and dog’s mercury i.e. ‘woodland indicators’. Our modern concept of ancient woods with blankets of super-abundant springtime flowers result from site continuity with long-term alternations of light and dark – boom and bust. This timeline eliminates catholic, competitive plants and favours shade-tolerant woodland flowers of vernal oak-bluebell woodlands and similar sites.

Bluebell in the Moss Valley Woodlands, Sheffield
Photo: Ian D. Rotherham

Areas described above are generally ancient woods historically managed by either coppice-with-standards (cut coppice stools from a base producing ‘wood’ on a management cycle of 10 to 25 years, and tall trees managed on a longer cycle of perhaps 60 to 120 years, producing timber), or else as simple coppice. However, in tracing the origins (mostly in England), of ancient woods and their indicator species, my research suggested ‘woods’ were enclosed from widespread wood-pasture and named ‘xxxxx wood’ at some point between around 1000 AD and perhaps 1300 AD. This enclosure was to protect managed woods from the adverse impacts of grazing animals especially livestock on the common, and from the endeavours of local peasantry liable to illegally take wood and timber from sites.

Nevertheless, enclosure from the once widespread common land wood-pasture (wooded common) was not restricted to what we now call ‘woods’ but included other areas of various types of wood-pasture. These sites were the hunting chases, deer parks, royal forests, and sometimes various forms of orchards (from groups of ancient pollards for leaf fodder to long-lived fruit trees such as pears). Some areas of wooded common became set aside as heaths and commons, and over the centuries many lost most of their tree cover to the impacts of grazing livestock and perhaps uncontrolled cutting of firewood. Other areas of unenclosed lands from the pre-Domesday (1086 AD) included wet fens (often alder and willow carr), upland moors and bogs, downland of chalk and limestone, and some mountain zones or coastal sites like dunes and cliffs. Many now fragmented sites were formerly part of the wider landscape of wood-pasture. Heavily grazed sites like chalk downs lost most of their tree cover very early in their history, but as shown by post-myxomatosis England for example, quickly re-gained woody plant cover once grazing pressure reduced. However, if after a period of lost grazing the herbivores returned, the result perhaps 50 or 60 years on, is emerging wood-pasture. For downland, the associated ground flora may take a while longer to re-colonise. However, many of the other areas just described have retained plenty of the so-called ‘woodland indicator’ flowers and their presence can help identify ‘shadow woods’ as ‘lost Domesday landscapes’, the one-time wooded commons. The dynamic processes influencing the ecology of open savanna and closed forest were discussed and debated in detail by Frans Vera in his seminal account Grazing Ecology and Forest History. However, Vera was commenting primarily on ‘wood-pastures’ rather than ‘woods’ and these are related but, as I explain, different. Both Rackham and Jones give thorough accounts of medieval woods and their management, and of their relationships to wood-pastures.

English royal ‘forests’ were not necessarily related to tree cover but to the areas within which the medieval ‘Forest Laws’ applied. These lands where the prerogative of hunting was vested in the crown estate, often included woods, commons, parks, farmland, and even villages within them.

Bluebell and stitchwort in the Moss Valley Woodlands, Sheffield
Photo: Ian D. Rotherham

Presence or absence of grazing, especially by large herbivores, is not a simple phenomenon. Even in managed ‘woods’, the animals associated with woodland workers like woodmen and charcoal burners, such as oxen, ponies, goats, and cows, were present and would graze. This was controlled grazing with localised impacts and not the widespread intensive grazing often experienced by wood-pastures. Nevertheless, this brief discussion separates the primarily ungrazed woodlands and those which were historically wood-pastures or meadows. ‘Woods’ belonged to the former category and generally had limited or at least only controlled or occasional grazing. More routine, regular, or intensive grazing removes most of the woodland flowers associated with the ancient coppice woods and they become wood-pastures. The same applies today if large, grazing herbivores are allowed into formerly protected coppice woods; you lose the bulk of the ancient woodland flora.      

What are woods?

If woodlands are countryside with varying amounts of tree cover and for a thousand years or so managed by humans, we need to think about the origin of our ‘woods’ specifically. These were sites enclosed for protection from grazing, from ancient wood-pastures and wood-meadows derived from older, primeval, savanna landscapes across much of Britain and Europe. Such wood-pastures were described by the 1086 AD Domesday account as dominant land-uses across much of England. Then, over a couple of centuries large amounts of this woodland type were replaced by managed coppice woods producing underwood and timber trees. If these latter areas survive today, they are ‘ancient woods’ and have been forged over nearly a thousand years of long-term, predictable, and intimate interactions between people and nature. These are remarkable and irreplaceable eco-cultural landscapes. Indeed, it is the human element in the woodland timelines which makes ‘woods’ what they are. Their ecology largely follows the predictable land-use associated with traditional and customary utilisation and then increasingly, by early industrial use to produce wood, timber, and charcoal for several centuries often up until the twentieth century. Woodland workers with particular skills frequently lived in the woods with their families for months at a time as they were hired to cut and process wood and timber. Some harvested bark for tanning, others made charcoal and white coal (dried wood), and there were timber men and clog-makers too. Knowledge of skills and occupations were based on oral traditions passed down father to son over countless generations. These activities are today evidenced by the humps and bumps of soils and earth in the woodland. Such features show up as hut circles, fireplaces, charcoal hearths, trackways, storage platforms, and worked trees (now retired veterans). These features and more, mark the landscape of people, our ancestors, over many centuries. When you walk through ancient woodland you tread in the footsteps of the ghosts of one-time occupants of this historic countryside. Furthermore, though often unappreciated, the impacts of these people on soils and the tree canopy help determine and drive the vegetation of the ancient woods that we see today. The human imprint is left like the writing on a medieval parchment to produce a palimpsest, a multi-layered image in the landscape. This can be read like a book to tell the story of each and every site.

Veteran small-leaved lime coppice, Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire
Photo: Ian D. Rotherham
Charcoal Burners’ Hut, New Forest around 1910s -1920s
Photo: Ian D. Rotherham

What is ‘ancient woodland’?

It is the above timelines that make woods ‘ancient’, and which determine the ecologies uniquely associated with such sites. However, there is more, because traditional management and protection as a wood has limited the intensive impacts of things like deep-ploughing and other disruptions. This means that the landscape as evidenced by archaeological features earth-fast stones (rocks firmly and immovably embedded in the ground indicating their antiquity), carved boulders, earth banks, ditches, prehistoric enclosures, and much more, survive here. In the wider countryside, most such features and their evidence have long-since been removed by modern human activities. This means that ancient woods, almost uniquely, hold remarkable and irreplaceable evidence of human settlement and activities, sometimes for periods of over 4,000 years. Some of the worked (now retired) ancient coppice trees may be aged from 500  to 1,000 years old, and small-leaved lime coppices may be up to 3,000 years old. The unique ecological systems of today’s woods are the consequences of these long timelines.

Not ‘natural’, these sites are indeed ‘working woods’ and this usage changed their ecologies over centuries. Yet the activities and their impacts were regular, routine, and predictable to produce an over-layering of each period and not total replacement or removal. The major consideration in understanding these places is the mix of antiquity, continuity, and the nature-human interaction.          

Massive earthwork at Whitwell Wood, Derbyshire
Photo: Ian D. Rotherham

The disappearing woods

Although ancient woodlands are in theory at least protected, there is no effective guidance or protection when it comes to their management. Although there was a hiatus in destruction of ancient woods in the late twentieth century, the situation has been reversed in the early twenty-first century. These are the ‘New Locust Years’ for our ancient woods and examples of the types and scales of impacts are given later and may be found in the suggested further readings. The damage is illustrated by the photographs (6-11). Combinations of misplaced desire to ‘manage’ woods and ill-informed directives on disease control for problems caused by long-term environmental change (such as climate and air pollution), urbanisation, and globalisation, is eradicating the ancientness of many woods. Large-scale tree removal is undertaken by a few contract workers unconnected to the locale, with massive, often tracked vehicles which trash thousand-year-old landscapes in just a few hours. Wheels, tracks, and winches simply obliterate all that went before, disturbing soils to trigger nutrient release and massive soil erosion. Worse still, site works are generally undertaken with limited survey and management planning and often no wider consultation or liaison with specialist interests. In almost all cases, there are no archaeological or heritage surveys to assess landscape sensitivity, and if assessments are undertaken, they are generally not by surveyors familiar with woodland heritage or ancient trees. In many cases, surveys have little or no information on ancient coppice trees or clonal species such as thousand-year-old holly growths, or of ancient woodland indicator species.

Forestry extraction through archaeological site at Whitwell Wood, Derbyshire
Photo: Ian D. Rotherham

Even the forestry of the 1950s and 1960s was performed by hand with groups of workers using chainsaws, and whilst I am told of entire prehistoric features sometimes ploughed out, the impacts pale compared to current management. Today’s activities have been described to me as just ‘working the woods’ with results described by senior Forestry Commission officers as ‘low impact and acceptable’. However, whilst this is indeed working the woods, it is not by traditional means and does not overwrite existing features but totally erases them. These sites then become ‘industrially managed woods’ as opposed to ‘traditionally managed ancient woods’, with centuries or even thousands of years of heritage, ecology, and landscape obliterated almost overnight. Is this publicly-funded management and site destruction acceptable? To me it is not. However, when I first raised this on a Forestry Commission site back in 2008, the senior FC archaeologist at the time said to me “Ian, it is just a few medieval charcoal hearths and there are plenty of those”. When I raised the issue of a unique, major prehistoric earthwork which had huge tractor ruts cut through the banks and ditch (see Photograph 11), he responded that, “Even ancient woods have to pay for themselves”. His other comment was “Well we only went through the monument twice”. More recently a spokesperson for Natural England stated that they did not take heritage aspects into account in the management of woodland Sites of Special Scientific Interest. This also does not seem to be acceptable.

Rough Standhills, Sheffield showing clearance of ancient woodland and wood-pasture removing prehistoric and medieval features
Photo: Ian D. Rotherham
Rough Standhills, Sheffield showing clearance of ancient woodland and wood-pasture removing prehistoric and medieval features
Photo: Ian D. Rotherham
Rough Standhills, Sheffield showing clearance of ancient woodland and wood-pasture removing prehistoric and medieval features
Photo: Ian D. Rotherham
Vehicle tracks though the monument Whitwell Wood
Photo: Ian D. Rotherham

Modern productive woods

Rarely understood in modern forestry practice, is that the cycles of growth and extraction of timber and underwood (coppice) in medieval woods throughout Europe lengthened over the centuries. Whilst the nature of the desired product may be one factor and ambient climate is another, it is generally accepted that woodlands simply exhausted their available nutrient supplies. Essentially, you can only take out what enters the system through mineralisation of soils and fallout from the atmosphere. In traditional Alpine forests for instance, the customary removal of leaves for leaf-mold was prohibited because of its impacts on nutrients for tree growth. Ironically, ancient woods are probably the last place to consider as productive sites for modern forestry and production. This is for the obvious reasons of sensitivity of wildlife and heritage, but also, to put it simply, they lack the long-term productive capacity. Their economic value should be recognised for delivering vital services such as biodiversity, heritage, floodwater control, carbon capture, and the health and wellbeing of local communities, and not for industrial timber and wood production. The approach of ecosystem service valuation developed over the last 30 years states this principle, but forestry and other stakeholders ignore the logic of widely accepted good practice. So, the idea that ‘even ancient woods must pay for themselves’ is valid as long as we accept that they already do so but without destructive harvesting. The alternative is that modern, industrially-worked woods become modified ‘post-industrial’ landscapes and are therefore not ‘ancient woods’.   

Sustainability or bust?

It is possible to manage woods in sustainable, low impact ways but we (society) lack the will to do this because it is relatively slow and expensive. Furthermore, there is a shortage of carefully researched and accessible guidance on woodland heritage and landscape sensitivity, and there are few field surveyors with the necessary training, experience, and competence to do the job. Worse still perhaps, is that universities and colleges in Britain no longer produce the professionals to undertake such survey and advisory work. However, whilst forestry agents and workers say they are merely working the woods and this is the only cost-effective way to operate, the argument ignores completely the damage done and the inherent value of ancient woods. These sites deliver ecosystem services such as slowing the flow of floodwaters, holding, and capturing carbon, reducing soil erosion in runoff (and consequent downstream pollution), and inherent landscape value and vintage. All these are unaccounted for. Furthermore, the loss of wildlife and human health benefits of woodlands as amenities for leisure and things like ‘forest bathing’ are also ignored. In terms of archaeology and heritage, there should be some costed approach equivalent to ecosystem service benefits in order to put a value on these currently under-appreciated facets of our ancient woods. Bearing in mind that the heritage destroyed ranges from a few centuries to thousands of years of irrecoverable timelines, the value of this resource is forever, and as the supermarket chain says, ‘once it’s gone, it’s gone’.

We might consider these unique ancient woodland sites as being rather like an oil painting by one of the great masters. In this case, I liken modern forestry management in these irreplaceable, unique landscapes as the equivalent of taking a black felt-tip pen to doodle on da Vinci’s canvas. You still have a painting, and nobody can dispute that, but it is not what it was.    

Doodling on the Mona Lisa
Photo: Ian D. Rotherham

The need for new awareness and new guidance

In field meetings to damaged sites with Forestry Commission and Woodland Trust officers, it was noted that ancient woods are not ‘natural’ but eco-cultural i.e. they have history as working woods. However, the differences between impacts in historic ‘traditionally-managed working woods’ and in modern ‘industrially-managed working woods’ were accepted. The impacts of site management were noted to include erosion of site heritage, archaeology, and associated ecology which may be irreparably damaged. However, there was also the masking of historic features by the superimposition of industrial impacts. In effect the heritage becomes ‘fuzzy’. Importantly, in understanding the scale and nature of the problem, it needs to be recognised that woodland heritage is the entire historic landscape with its soil, earthworks, stones, ecology, and historically worked trees. Contrasting with assessments by many traditionally-trained archaeologists, these features are not ‘monuments’ with nothing in-between the recognisable upstanding evidence visible from superficial inspection. However, on the rare occasions that woodland features are recorded in the Sites and Monuments Records of local authorities, which means they may be reviewed in proposals for site works, this is how they are presented. In the context of this article the entire woodland landscape is essentially ‘the monument’ and needs to be treated as such.

From site-based discussions with stakeholders it was agreed that there is a need for:

  1. Pocket field guidance booklets on woodland heritage for managers and operatives.
  2. An updated version of the ‘Woodland Heritage Manual’ with good practice guidance.
  3. An updated ‘guidance note’ for contract operatives of working with timber in ancient woods [FC guidance note].
  4. Guidance for contractors on genuinely low-impact vehicles and their operation – to be specified in contracts, and with acceptance that heavy machinery and ancient woodland status are incompatible.
  5. Awareness-raising workshops.

Finally, for site project budgeting and accounting (cost-benefit) there needs to be recognition in financial, economic, and cost terms of heritage valuation and loss of heritage by discounting etc. This is in much the same way as we do with ecosystem services. It is suggested that a valuation system should be drawn up with specialist heritage and economic inputs. If this was undertaken, then damage to heritage or archaeology in woodland would be better reflected in project budgeting with policies akin to ‘no net biodiversity loss’ but for heritage. This of course has the rider that the situation differs from much biodiversity, in that heritage cannot be traded or replaced but is either conserved or not. We believe that the PEFC [The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification] could incorporate such an approach and dialogue with ICOMOS [International Council on Monuments and Sites] suggests interest and support. Present certification schemes for woodland and forest products do not incorporate the necessary guidance for heritage sustainability and so current quality marques do not reflect genuine sustainability.

Further reading

Jones, M. (2009) Sheffield’s Woodland Heritage. 4th Edition, Wildtrack Publishing, Sheffield.

Peterken, G.F. (2023) Ancient woodland in concept and practice. In: Çolak, A.H., Kirca, S., & Rotherham, I.D. (eds) (2023) Ancient Woods, Trees and Forests: Ecology, History and Management. Pelagic Publishing, London, 1-14.

Rackham, O., 2006. Woodlands. New Naturalist Library. Collins, London.

Rackham, O., 2008. Ancient woodlands: modern threats. New Phytologist, 180 (3): 57-734

Rackham, O. (2023) Archaeology of trees, woodland and wood-pasture. In: Çolak, A.H., Kirca, S., & Rotherham, I.D. (eds) (2023) Ancient Woods, Trees and Forests: Ecology, History and Management. Pelagic Publishing, London, 31-71.

Rotherham, I.D. (2013) Ancient Woodland: History, Industry and Crafts. Shire Publications, Oxford.

Rotherham, I.D. (2017) Shadow Woods. A Search for Lost Landscapes. Wildtrack Publishing, Sheffield.

Rotherham, I.D. (2020) Relict Woodlands in the South Pennines and Dark Peak – reconstructing the evidence from ecological indicators and archival sources. In: Rotherham, I.D., & Handley, C. (eds) (2020) Investigating Tree Archaeology. History and Technology of Woodland Management and Product Use. Wildtrack Publishing, Sheffield, 289-326.

Rotherham, I.D. (2021a) Forest & Wood as Historic Archives of People, Place & Past. In: Woitsch, J. (ed.) European Forests – Our Cultural Heritage. Nová tiskárna Pelhřimov & Institute of Ethnology of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Pelhřimov, Prague 2021, 11-28.

Rotherham, I.D. (2021b) Challenges for the restoration of cultural values in UK woodlands. Forest Ecology and Management.  

Rotherham, I.D. (2022) Ancient trees and botanical indicators as evidence for change and continuity in landscape evolution. In: G. Decocq (ed.) Historical Ecology. Learning from the past to understand the present and forecast the future of ecosystems. ISTE, Wiley, New York.

Rotherham, I.D. (2023) The cultural heritage of woods and forests. In: Çolak, A.H., Kirca, S., & Rotherham, I.D. (eds) (2023) Ancient Woods, Trees and Forests: Ecology, History and Management. Pelagic Publishing, London, 15-30.

Rotherham, I.D. (2023) Worked trees and ecological indicators in wooded landscapes. In: Çolak, A.H., Kirca, S., & Rotherham, I.D. (eds) (2023) Ancient Woods, Trees and Forests: Ecology, History and Management. Pelagic Publishing, London, 108-123.

Rotherham, I.D., Jones, M., Smith, L., & Handley, C. (eds.) (2008) The Woodland Heritage Manual: A Guide to Investigating Wooded Landscapes. Wildtrack Publishing, Sheffield.

Vera, F.H.W. (2000) Grazing Ecology and Forest History. CABI Publishing, Oxon.

Ian Rotherham is Emeritus Professor at the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University. @IanThewildside


Rotherham, Ian “ECOS 45 (3) – How modern management erases ‘Ancient Woods’” ECOS vol. 45 (3) ECOS 2024, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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